Former sportswriter sues Missoulian on 10 separate counts

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

A former sportswriter for the Missoulian has filed an amended complaint in Missoula District Court, suing the newspaper on 10 separate counts ranging from intentional infliction of emotional distress to negligent supervision of employees and wrongful discharge.

The complaint, filed by Lowy Law on behalf of Kyle Sample, names the paper’s parent company, Lee Enterprises, as a defendant, along with editor Kathy Best and former sports editor Bob Meseroll.

Sample is asking the court for a trial by jury and damages.

“We are not in the habit of taking on a client that we don’t feel has a claim,” said Olivia Erickson with Lowy Law. “We are aware there’s been a good number of other complaints against the Missoulian.”

Lee Enterprises has not yet responded to the complaint, though Erickson said opposing counsel has been “very gracious” in the suit’s early stages.

Sample filed his initial lawsuit in Missoula District Court in February, claiming the newspaper withheld up to 400 hours of overtime pay while expecting an impossible workload for a 40-hour work week.

The new complaint dives deeper into what the lawsuit contends was a hostile work environment within the Missoulian sports department. It details several interactions between Sample and his immediate supervisor, Meseroll, along with fellow sportswriter AJ Mazzolini.

“For almost two years, the defendants subjected (Sample) to unwelcome conduct of a harassing and abusive nature,” the suit alleges. “(Sample’s) workplace was permeated with harassing and abusive intimidation that was sufficiently severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of his employment and create an abusive working environment.”

The suit argues that Meseroll and Mazzolini intentionally engaged in hostile and abusive behavior toward Sample. It contends that Sample was harassed, plagiarized and undermined during his employment with the paper.

“(Sample) suffered negligent infliction of emotional distress due to defendant (Meseroll) and (Mazzolini’s) negligently hostile and abusive treatment during his employment with them, and the negligent failure of defendant Kathy Best and the Missoulian to prevent such treatment,” it states.

In the lawsuit, Sample argues that he was ultimately terminated after writing a story regarding a high-school athlete in Arlee who alleged she had been abused by her father. Sample was later told that he had severely erred with the story and had placed the paper at risk of a lawsuit.

Sample discovered his key card no longer worked at the door on Sept. 23, 2016 “and knew that he’d been fired.” The suit adds that the paper never printed a retraction or an apology for the story. It also suggests that Meseroll failed in his duties as the sports editor to proofread his department’s copy, including the story that landed Sample in hot water.

“(The story) was slated to run in the Billings Gazette, which is owned by the same parent company, Lee Enterprises,” the suit states. “It was pulled before publication – a sports copy editor at the Gazette read it and recognized that it could be problematic. Yet somehow, neither the copy editors at the Missoulian, nor (Meseroll) – (Sample’s) actual editor – managed to do the same.”

The suit says the Gazette had published an article in 2012 about the same athlete’s mother, in which she stated that her husband – the athlete’s father – was abusive. That article is still online.

The suit also points to the Missoulian’s employee handbook and its statement that the newspaper is an at-will employer that may terminate with or without notice at any time, and at the option of the newspaper.

“This is in violation of the Wrongful Discharge of Employment Act,” the suit states. “This is not legally enforceable.”